Standing Up to Anne Longfield’s Rhetoric

Woman’s Hour discussion demonstrates that if home educators are given the opportunity, they can answer their critics!

What’s been said?

We recently wrote about how a Northamptonshire Serious Case Review about an unnamed boy had resulted in media headlines calling for a national review of HE. We highlighted how careful reading of the SCR, reports of his mother’s and partner’s convictions, as well as the associated media reports, portray a very different picture to the one being spun by the Local Authority and others. Most notably, “Child Ab” was far from hidden: he had been in school for almost three of the four years concerned; various professionals had raised concerns about him; and he had been subject to a Child in Need plan (which was not properly acted upon) before being withdrawn from school.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, was eager to join in the blame-game associated with this tragic family by turning the spotlight of this case away from the Council’s failures and onto the lack of supervision LAs have of HE children. Whilst there is no statement on her website, she quickly found her way onto Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour on 31 January. Perhaps realising the need to give an appearance of editorial balance, Wendy Charles-Warner of Education Otherwise was also invited to participate in the discussion. The presenter was Jenni Murray. [Segment starts at 12 min. approx. Listen Again, Download MP3 or transcript.]

Murray was well briefed on what the take-home message was intended to be from this item. Her introduction did not make clear that the majority of the “four years of terrible abuse at the hands of his parents,” took place prior to this boy “being schooled at home.” In fact she implied the opposite.

After introducing her guests, Murray asked the Children’s Commissioner, “what does this Northamptonshire case demonstrate for you?” Longfield played a straight bat, focusing all her concerns on lobbying for more regulation of HE and claiming, “it demonstrates the terrible experience and dangers that can occur when children are hidden from view.” Glossing over the facts, she continued, “they did so under the auspices of home schooling.”

When invited to comment on the proposal for a national register, Charles-Warner put the record straight, quoting Longfield’s own comments to counter her misleading opening statement:

“I think actually that we’re asking the wrong question, because we’re not talking about a child who was unseen, unknown or hidden. We’re talking about a child who was well known to Social Services. The school nurse had been persistent in seeking to report the child, and services could have acted. I can quote something Anne said about Northamptonshire Children’s Services in 2019, ‘They failed to protect the most vulnerable children and have a dysfunctional safeguarding system.’ Unfortunately that becomes extrapolated and home education becomes a whipping boy for a problem which is actually a Social Services problem.”

Murray came to Longfield’s aid, deflecting Charles-Warner’s clarity by asking what the benefits of a register would be. Though Longfield did acknowledge her previous criticism of Northamptonshire, she quickly turned the focus back onto HE by paying lip-service to those parents who “do it well.” She then went on however to make unevidenced claims about “unprepared” HE parents, and those “who are actively using the loose regulation and lax regulation as a way of disappearing from view and avoiding the authorities.” From this springboard, Longfield opined that for responsible HE parents “I don’t think it’s too much to ask or too big a burden to have a register.”

Eight minutes into the discussion Murray asked Charles-Warner why parents who elect to HE their children are “so scared of being registered.” She responded “Their children are already stigmatized by negative media reports and the whole concept that is put across that they are abused children. Home educated children are not abused children.” Charles-Warner also commented, “Currently on the last occasion we assessed it, almost all bar maybe a dozen local authorities of the one hundred and fifty-two in England were not compliant with the legislation and guidance,” before concluding, “if we give them further powers, that will end in further non-compliance.”

Ignoring the point about LA overreach, Murray asked Longfield, “Why increase the stigma?” The Commissioner denied that registration would increase the stigma for HE children, before making the final comment she hoped listeners would remember, “I think we, everyone, would want children to be safe and educated and there are a very small few who are using the banner of home education quite wrongly to actually disappear from view.”

Why does it matter?

This exchange illustrates how easy it is for public servants who really should know better to wrap themselves up in a mindset which is far from rational. The evidence of repeated Social Services failures in the case of Child Ab may not be in the headlines, but it is clear to see for all who look properly. Children’s professionals however, including Longfield, choose to obscure the facts by spreading fears about those who choose to be different.

The Children’s Commissioner’s role has at its core a responsibility to gather evidence, including by talking to children and young people. One has to ask if she has made any efforts to find out from HE children how they feel about the repeated undermining of their parents’ choices? If she hasn’t, what evidence has she gathered to demonstrate that they don’t feel stigmatized by the negative, scaremongering rhetoric about HE, which has been in the headlines for the last decade? How can children and parents have confidence in someone who abuses their public position in this way?

What can I do?

Be thankful that there are members of the HE community like Charles-Warner, who are willing and able to stand up to people like Longfield in the national media.

Let her example encourage you not to be overawed by the constant barrage of fears and criticism levelled at HE parents.

Do your best to be informed about the facts behind the negative headlines, so that whether you end up talking to family members, friends, local councillors or your MP, you are able to provide them with a better understanding of the realities of HE.

Helping the HE community to be better informed is the main purpose of The HE Byte.